Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

What a delightful book. Michel Faber is a prose master and a crackerjack storyteller, for sure.

This 2002 best selling novel bears many similarities to classic Victorian novels, such as those written by Dickens or Thackery. Its setting is 19th century London; it directly addresses the reader, as do many 18th and 19th century novels; it features a large cast of characters, from the lower to the upper classes; it is told in a leisurely and detailed manner and is very long, almost 900 pages. It is markedly different, however, in that it is very modernly realistic--Victorian England as it really was, in all its grit and glory.

The central character, the prostitute Sugar, is so extraordinarily well described and developed that she steps off the page. Introduced into the life of prostitution by her own mother when she is a young teen, she becomes an expert whore, all the while writing a novel featuring gruesome revenge on the male sex. When she becomes the favorite of a rising manufacturing magnate, it becomes possible that she might be able to rise from the squalor of her background.

Other characters--Sugar's good-hearted prostitute friend, her egotistical lover, his mad wife, his neglected daughter, and his confused but pious brother--are equally well rendered and lifelike.

Some readers may be disappointed at the open-end conclusion, but I would submit that nothing else would have been suitable given the realistic nature of the narrative. Victorian novels customarily ended with a tying up of all the stories, but this novel is not based in romanticism. Faber allows readers to imagine for themselves the ultimate fates of the characters, supplying their own "happily-ever-after" or more realistic outcome.

Don't be at all daunted by the length of the book; it flows so easily and is so impossible to put down that it can be read in record time, I assure you.

I would also recommend Faber's recent novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which is completely different in style and content but equally well done.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

This 1944 science fiction classic is the tale of a dog treated with hormones by a scientist to have a mind equivalent to a highly intelligent man's, yet retaining the instincts and the senses typical of a canine. It has been compared to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and like that book, it has little to do with science and much to do with philosophical matters.

The dog Sirius is reared by the family of the scientist alongside Plexy, the youngest daughter, receiving exactly the same upbringing. The two form a loving bond of the spirit, becoming almost two halves of a whole, yet separated by the instinctual demands of their human and animal natures. As they reach adulthood, it becomes increasingly clear that, while Plexy has a variety of life choices open to her, Sirius has few options and has no prospect of finding a suitable mate, because he is the only creature of his kind in the world. The plot serves as a springboard for thoughtful questioning about weighty matters concerning such diverse subjects as scientific responsibility, religious belief, and what it means to be human.

The following may be something of a spoiler, but potential readers of this novel should be aware that the author very discretely and sensitively indicates a sexual relationship between the dog and the girl. Knowing this, some would choose not to give the book a try, I feel sure. It's only fair that they know.

This is an interesting novel on several levels, well worth your time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

Second reading. Evidently first read a long time ago, because I didn't remember I had read it before until about 20 pages in.

Of the ten Faulkner novels I have read, this is my least favorite. The main reason: the subject matter does not seem to fit the language. When describing the Southern landscape or recounting Gothic-flavored events, Faulkner's lush stream of consciousness sentences enhance the narrative. However, when the basic plot is a somewhat simple crime story and when the convoluted sentences are primarily used to detail Faulkner's opinions about how to solve the problems of race relations in the post-Civil War South, the reader becomes tempted to skim over the lengthy digressions and to view them as needless indulgences on the author's part. He does not seem to be telling a story here so much as preaching a sermon about how government interference has hampered rather than helped in the South's healing.

The plot concerns the murder of a white man for which a black man is blamed. The pride of the black man prevents him from telling his side of the story to the authorities because he knows he will not be believed. Instead, he enlists the help of a teenaged white boy who owes him a debt of honor, who is assisted by his black friend and an elderly old-maid who happens to believe in the innocence of the accused.

For the first time in reading Faulkner, I became annoyed at his refusal to use standard punctuation, when it would have made the text so much easier to read. And really, parenthetical elements inside parenthetical elements in sentences extending over pages--was that really necessary?

As always, the best way to read Faulkner is aloud or at least aloud in your head, to catch the rhythm and the sense. One cannot skim read William Faulkner.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

It's one thing for one author to be influenced by another who has come before; that sort of thing is common. It's quite another thing for one author to duplicate so exactly another writer's distinctive style and prose mannerisms, as Cormac McCarthy does here in his first published novel. It's as if he is directly channeling William Faulkner. We have the pronouns without antecedents, so that a reader has to look for clues as to who is being discussed. We have the abrupt shifts without transition in characters and times. We have pages-long lyrical descriptions of the sights and sounds and smells of landscape. We have unfamiliar and seemingly made up words in abundance. We have meandering sentences that sometimes require a second or third reading to make any sense.

What we don't have is a story.

The three central characters--an old cantankerous hermit, a young whiskey runner, and a fatherless boy--have intersecting lives, but each has his own separate drama, even though any sense of conflict is absent. Instead of being about people, the book seems to tell the story of a fast-vanishing landscape and time in American history, before government and industrialization took control of lives.

I would have appreciated this novel much more if I had never read any Faulkner. I was constantly aware of the similarities and constantly being critical, because as hard as he tries McCarthy never quite catches the cadence and richness of language that makes Faulkner hypnotic. And all the beautiful and evocative descriptions in the universe seem pointless without some character growth and/or some suspense about what happens next.

The good news is that Cormac McCarthy developed a style more distinctively his own, and has produced an impressive body of work. Particularly notable are Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

This Discworld novel was not quite what I expected from my (admittedly limited) previous experience with Terry Pratchett. It is much more satirical and serious and much less wacky fun than the others by Pratchett I have read. Of course, satire is humorous in a way, but it's the kind of humor that inspires wry grins rather than the audible chuckles which result from witty one-liners and outrageous escapades.

The subject matter here is serious stuff indeed: the perils of religious zealism when combined with political actions. It's all too easy to point to the Catholic Church during the time of the Inquisitions as the inspiration for Pratchett's plot, but good satire is based on common human patterns of behavior rather than on specific situations. Not to mention any names here from current events, but rhetoric about "the Axis of Evil" and "the Great Satan" would both fit into this novel quite well.

The plot concerns the Great God Om, who has been reduced to manifesting himself as a tortoise, because, as it turns out, he has only one true believer left, although a whole country professes belief, whether from fear or habit or for political reasons. Brutha, the true believer, thus becomes the Chosen One, and that is an uncomfortable job, particularly when the chief Inquisitor takes an interest in him.

Small Gods may not be as laugh-out-loud funny as the usual Pratchett fare, but it provides more food for thought.

Just after I finished this, I heard that Terry Pratchett had died. His loss will be deeply felt by many.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

First, a warning. Seeing the movie Fight Club before reading the book will spoil much of the impact. Probably the reverse is also true.

For those who haven't seen the movie -- the unnamed narrator is seeking relief from insomnia and begins going to support groups for Dread Diseases to find emotional release and thus sleep. At one such session he meets Marla, who is a fraud, just as he is. She will become part of the sort-of love triangle. Later, he falls asleep on a beach and when he wakes up he meets Tyler Durden for the first time, who becomes his house mate and his partner in the founding of Fight Club. What starts as a bunch of guys getting together to beat each other to a pulp for recreational and psychological purposes expands into Project Mayhem, whereby a bunch of guys get together to commit pranks and later more lethal escapades. In this surreal situation of nihilism and violence, events--and Tyler--spiral out of control. And then comes an unexpected plot twist.

I am the wrong audience for this book; it's not surprising that I didn't like it very much. I am always excessively annoyed by the "modern life is empty and stultifying and devoid of meaning" scenario, which is portrayed here. I also found the writing style to be highly unpleasant; the prose is ragged and rough and choppy. I like shapely and flowing and grammatically correct sentences.

Some of my other complaints may be entirely owing to my personal lack of understanding (but I don't think so). Is there a point being made, a moral to the story, so to speak? Maybe it's just meant to be an interesting plot with an unexpected conclusion, but it seems that Palahniuk had more in mind. I just missed it, maybe. Also, the back cover blurbs call this "darkly funny." I missed that, too. Are accounts of waiters spitting and urinating in food supposed to be humorous? Were the very excesses of blood and violence and anarchy supposed to elicit chuckles?

To give the book its due, Fight Club has a goodly amount of raw power and is highly unsettling. It has become an "underground classic." I'm sure the right reader finds it riveting.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Victorian novel readers were obviously especially fond of the Marriage Plot, because book after book features a young couple who readers almost immediately know are bound to fall in love, encountering obstacles along the way to finding a happy marriage. Most often the obstacles concern money or a disparity of social standing. Sometimes, as in this novel, the obstacle is a third person who initially fascinates and charms before revealing undesirable character traits. From the first, the reader anticipates a favorable outcome, trusting that the good people will overcome the less worthy people and adverse circumstances to end up together. Thus, a reader does not feel totally cheated to find that, unfortunately, Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly with one chapter of this novel left to write. She had cleared up all the problems and just needed to write the happy ending, and it is easy to imagine the conclusion, even without the notes added by her editor.

The love triangle consists of the sweet and unselfish Molly, her beautiful and charming step-sister Cynthia, and the dependable and intelligent neighbor Osborne. Gaskell resists making Cynthia the nasty villain, instead portraying her sympathetically, as being flawed by a lack of loving and wise upbringing. In fact, Gaskell treats all her flawed characters kindly, even Molly's self-centered step-mother.

This novel is often compared to Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, and one can see echoes of Austin's Mrs. Bennet in Molly's less-than-intelligent and selfish step-mother. But Gaskell's tone is not nearly so acerbic or so sharply humorous as Austin's. More clear similarities exist between Wive and Daughters and Anthony Trollope's Dr. Thorne, particularly in the portrayal of the relationship between a father and daughter and in the general tone of sympathy and gentle irony. It even compares favorably with George Eliot's Middlemarch for Gaskell's skill in delineating character.

Somehow, even feeling sure from the first that the ending will be happy does not keep Wives and Daughters from being a compulsive read. It is delightful.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

It's hard to say what really happens in this novel. The characters don't know; they can't tell if they are experiencing reality or hallucination or drug-induced psychosis or an alternate reality. The reader doesn't know; he/she is presented with so many rapid-fire possibilities and divergent philosophical and religious interpretations that it is impossible not to get lost in the maze. Disquietingly, Philip K. Dick doesn't even appear to know; it's as if the book were written by his subconscious mind, and he, too, is lost in a maze.

Rolling Stone magazine called The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch "...the classic LSD novel of all time." Dick maintained that he had not tried LSD when this book was written, and, as he was quite open about his drug use, that is probably the truth. One can only conclude (presuming that the writers at Rolling Stone knew about LSD first hand) that life for Philip K. Dick was like one long "trip," and what a "long, strange trip" it was.

The plot goes a little something like this: On Earth, Barney Mayerson works for the giant corporation run by Leo Bulero which manufactures Perky Pat Layouts, essentially play houses complete in every detail for Barbi-type dolls, which are sold to the people who have been conscripted to settle Mars and other outposts of humanity, to connect them to life back on Earth. Under the table and illegally, the corporation also sells Can-D, a drug that allows the homesick outlanders to be "translated" into Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt for a short period of time. And then Palmer Eldritch arrives back from a ten-year space voyage with a new drug, Chew-Z, with the slogan, "God promises eternal life. We can deliver it." It allows partakers to experience an alternate reality for what seems like years, decades, perhaps forever, while only minutes pass by in "real" time.

And that's just the set-up for the really strange goings-on.

I forgot to mention that Earth is experiencing global warming so severe that Antarctica has become the resort destination for the rich. Or that the very rich can pay for E Therapy which speed them through thousands of years of evolution so that they come out with heat-resistant bodies and huge brains. Or that Palmer Eldritch has one metal arm and teeth of steel and a slitted visor instead of eyes, his three stigmata.

Dick haphazardly presents so many intriguing concepts that they become dizzying, all before embarking on the focus of the novel -- who or what is Palmer Eldritch? Is he the receptacle for an alien presence or entity? Is he a god? Or perhaps the evil one? Will mankind be sacrificed to save the god?

People either dislike Philip K. Dick or they love him. If they really, really love him, they call themselves Dickheads. Dickheads consider this novel one of his best.